How the law has developed to tackle modern slavery

Lorelle Doyle explores the latest updates to the Modern Slavery Act and the implications the new bill could have on large businesses

Modern slavery is an issue that has more recently come to a head as companies, their customers and clients become more conscious of ethical practices and aware of exploitation that may exist in their supply chains, which must be rectified. 

The main legislation in the UK that governs this area is the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA), which came into force on 26 March 2015. Prior to this, there were a number of international legal instruments which applied (for example, the Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, and the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings). 

The MSA gives a detailed definition of what constitutes human trafficking, namely arranging or facilitating the victim's travel (with or without their consent) with a view to them being exploited. This definition encompasses recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving the victim, or transferring or exchanging control over the victim. Modern slavery also encapsulates offences whereby a person is placed under slavery or servitude, or subjected to forced or compulsory labour. 

There have been a number of companies in recent years which have had aspects of modern slavery uncovered in their supply chains. This is usually triggered where products or goods are sourced without proper due diligence into the conditions of people who are involved in the supply, and who are subject to exploitation. 

This can have a severe impact upon the public perception of that company, and subsequent business deals and investment. 

Large commercial organisations, with a turnover of more than £36m, have an obligation under the MSA to prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement. These statements must be approved by the company board, signed by a director and made available on the company's website. This obligation was introduced in the MSA as a measure to tackle modern slavery in supply chains. 

If a company does not produce a statement, there is no mechanism for criminal enforcement, albeit they can be compelled to produce a statement by the secretary of state. Should the company fail to comply, they may be subjected to an unlimited fine. 

There have been calls by commentators for further powers and duties to ensure a tighter regime against modern slavery. The proposed measures are criminal penalties for failing to produce a slavery and human trafficking statement; a central database where one can view company reports; and more transparent duties to compel companies to publish the due diligence steps taken when assessing supply chains for risk. 

The Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill 2017 aims to tackle the suggestions put forward by commentators by extending the obligations upon large companies. If enacted (as currently drafted), this legislation would make reporting mandatory and facilitate an easily accessible list of all commercial organisations which are required to publish a statement. The proposed measure with arguably the greatest potential impact is disqualification of companies from being awarded public contracts, should they fail to publish a statement.

Modern slavery is unfortunately very much still an issue in supply chains. Any additional powers that the Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill 2017 can bring to the table will hopefully assist those already contained in the MSA to significantly reduce exploitation in supply chains. 

Lorelle Doyle is an associate at Dentons